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Warm, yes, but not hot: the Skills White Paper

Skills: young people working on computers
Kasper de Graaf
January 26, 2021
Key Cities is the only APPG that looks at urban UK in the round, but many other groups make important contributions in policy areas relevant to cities. Kasper de Graaf attended one such, on the Government’s new White Paper on Skills.

A renewed focus on skills training – a topic of crucial importance to inclusive growth in Key Cities, and to the Government’s levelling up agenda – was promised in the Skills for Jobs White Paper which was published last week and discussed yesterday at a meeting of the APPG for Skills and Employment, organised by Policy Connect CEO Jonathan Shaw and chaired by Sir John Hayes MP.

The verdict? In the estimation of Baroness Sue Garden it’s a curate’s egg, with a welcome emphasis on jobs and lifelong learning, but no more than a hope for sufficient investment to achieve its lofty ambitions.

Promises include funding for Level 3 skills training in later life under a “Lifetime Skills Guarantee”, loans for lifelong learning and a renewed emphasis on gearing training to employment opportunities. Business groups will work with colleges to tailor plans to local needs and by the end of the decade, employers are expected to co-design almost all technical courses. There will be new higher technical qualifications and there’s a promise of student finance – though not in the current Parliament.

How much of that will come to pass?

David Hughes, CEO of the Association of Colleges (who also reviewed the White Paper in an article for TES yesterday) welcomed the clear acknowledgement that skills are essential to economic growth in the recovery. Concerns about funding aside, the initiative should be given a chance in the hope that a systemic programme can be co-created from this beginning.

There were “sprinkles of fairy dust”, City & Guilds CEO Kirstie Donnelly agreed, particularly in linking skills and jobs and understanding the vital role of FE colleges. We must be realistic about where the gaps are though: the White paper barely touches on digital transformation.

Industry input was widely welcomed, with Lord Lucas highlighting the importance of specialist embedded industry-generated qualifications. When it comes to designing technical courses, however, Cadent Gas Chief People Officer Martin Rimmer warned that employers don’t have the bandwidth to drive programme development. They are keen, however, to address skills shortages and gender imbalance, and he welcomed the emphasis on engineering.

Dame Ruth Silver, former Principal of Lewisham College and former Chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, agreed employers are too busy, so responsibility for driving the programme will lie with education and training providers. Schools and universities, she felt, could have been pulled into the process more than they are in the proposals.

The inadequacy of immediate funding was described as disappointing by Work & Pensions Select Committee Chair Stephen Timms MP, but is there scope for regional decision-making, he wondered? That’s a key issue, agreed Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher, pointing to today’s relaunch of “the Doncaster Promise”, a collaboration between industry and training providers to tailor skills to industry need.

And – with 80% of the UK’s buses built in his constituency and 60% of Sunday roast chickens on British dinner tables likely to have been reared in County Antrim – North Antrim MP Ian Paisley also feels the importance of local should not be underestimated. When tobacco factories closed in his constituency four years ago, there was an urgent need to reskill the workforce. The best strategy was to understand the skills that people already have, and adapt those to emerging opportunities. In North Antrim, those include hydrogen energy and hydrogen-powered emission-free vehicles.

Rhys Morgan of the Royal Academy of Engineering, however, pointed to a tension between local control and national strategic workforce planning. The USA and Singapore view human resources more as a strategic national asset, while the UK by comparison has a more laissez-faire attitude. Is there a case, he asked, for better coordination and planning in this area between Government departments such as DWP and BEIS?

The change of tone linking skills with jobs is significant, said Make UK’s Bhavina Bharkhada, welcoming the freedom for Further Education colleges to work with employers to boost productivity and drive economic growth in the regions. This was echoed by the Work Institute’s Fiona Aldridge, who stressed the importance of a place-based ecosystem. Skills, she pointed out, are not only a means of responding to existing need: they can also drive inward investment and growth.

How to get more people taking up skills training?

There’s certainly an appetite, said Fiona Aldridge, pointing to 21 million people engaging with learning during lockdown. The key is to make the offer accessible, affordable and attractive. The involvement of employers helps to attract, but more needs to be done to make it accessible and affordable.

The unions can help, said ex-TUC General Secretary Lord John Monks. He noted the Union Learning Fund has been under threat from the current Secretary of State and hoped its value would be better understood going forward. Union learning and advocacy can help to achieve employee buy-in. A measure of success for the policy in Lord Monks’ view would be to have a skills system that’s so good that the person in the street can say what it is.

In summary, Sir John Hayes highlighted six points:

  1. The importance of pathways, progression and continuing to invest in lifelong adult education

  2. Taking account of local and regional need and addressing the diversity of the workforce with an equally “multi-coloured and multi-flavoured” system

  3. Understanding that the role of employers will be to help shape and not drive the system

  4. A need to think further about the central importance of modular, distance and digital learning

  5. Thinking about workforce planning and what the skills being developed need to be so as to build effective careers

  6. We must invest in skills to have a coordinated industrial strategy, with the investment and resources to show we are serious about it

All in all, concluded Sir John, it’s a warm welcome, but not a hot one. A good start.

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